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Between Politics and Practice: Lessons for U.S. Immigrant Integration from Europe

The United States has long prided itself on its history of being a melting pot of cultures, races, and creeds. However, critiques over the United States’ ability to successfully support and integrate immigrants into its society has recently surfaced. In reaction to the changing demographic makeup of communities across the United States, nativist concerns over immigration have grown stronger, making the need for a more comprehensive integration policy more apparent. Unlike some European counterparts, the United States does not have a federal integration policy. This leaves the task of integrating and supporting immigrants to individual state or local governments and local civic organizations. Without federal support, they frequently lack enough funding to properly establish long-standing integration programs. Ultimately, many immigrants are forced to navigate integration into the United States largely through personal trial and error.

This raises an important question: How can the United States better facilitate the integration of immigrants in an environment colored by increasing divisiveness and political polarization surrounding their presence? To answer this question, we examined the integration policies of three countries in Europe that promote immigrant integration against a background of rising anti-immigrant sentiment. We found that in each country, federal policies support regional and municipal governments charged with the day-to-day care of the immigrants in their communities. Germany, Spain, and Denmark each provide U.S. policymakers with different windows into why developing a federal integration policy is a necessary component of reforming our immigration system, increasing the success of immigrants in the United States, and benefiting the country overall.

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  1. Germany

    Despite Germany’s extensive history with guest workers in the decades following the Second World War, it was not until the turn of the century—when the coalition of the Social Democratic Party and Green party was elected in 1998–that Germany’s attitudes towards immigration and integration began to change. When Chancellor Helmut Kohl left office that year, the newly-elected coalition declared that Germany was indeed a country of immigration, which subsequently laid the groundwork for concrete policy changes in the early 2000s.1 The most significant legal changes to the German immigration system under the new government occurred with the adoption of the Residence Act of 2005. While the act reduced administrative complexity and expanded options for permanent residency, it also established concrete measures meant to improve the integration of immigrants into Germany. This included federally funded German language classes and introductory courses to the country’s justice system, culture, and history.

    In addition, the Federal Office for Refugees and Migration (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, or BAMF) took on an entirely new role facilitating immigration and managing integration. BAMF, once solely focused on asylum, assumed the primary role of implementing and directing German integration policy. With the 2005 reforms, BAMF not only became responsible for the organization of large-scale language and integration coursework, but also for the distribution of European Union (EU) funding and resources from the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (EU-AIMF); the coordination of various hotlines to serve the immigrant population; and the management of an internal research department. While BAMF has over 7,300 full-time staff, it also allocates 1,600 positions to other federal agencies like the Federal Employment Office, which provides the agency with much-needed flexibility and inter-agency cooperation to reduce backlogs when needed.

    Today, BAMF has an entire department dedicated to providing integration advice and resources with everything from a 130-page brochure entitled Welcome to Germany2 to a counseling center and advice center for family and community members who are concerned a friend or relative may become radicalized. BAMF also lists every single regional and local migration office across Germany, and allows individuals to look up the closest office by their postal code and connects federal resources to regional centers. The system automatically populates the regional migration coordinator’s contact information to make it easy for immigrants to get in touch with their local officials. Individuals can also utilize BAMF’s search system to find migration advice centers, youth migration services, counseling centers, and integration courses offered closest to them. In essence, BAMF directly links federal integration resources to local and regional centers, making integration efforts possible not only in urban areas like Berlin, but also in more rural towns like Frankfurt-an-der-Oder.

    At a regional level, another example of Germany’s approach to integration is from the city of Frankfurt.3 In 2016, Frankfurt began to sponsor low-rise, modular homes in unused building plots in the city’s center for incoming refugee families. The pop-up homes themselves were built more quickly and affordably than regular housing and were intended to function as temporary housing units until refugee families and individuals could find a more permanent solution. Although supporters of the affordable modular homes argued that their location in downtown Frankfurt facilitated migrants’ access to schools and workplaces, others critiqued the pop-ups homes as a low-quality solution. Nevertheless, the concept of affordable housing for migrant communities was the feature of Germany’s submission to the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016, with the director of the German Architecture Museum arguing that Germany faces a housing crisis, and not a refugee crisis.

    However, Germany is not a perfect example, as the pandemic has shed light on the difficulties the government is having maintaining the positive trend of integration across the labor market. Unemployment for migrants in Germany rose by 27% from March to June 2020, compared to a 20% increase among native Germans, according to Federal Labor Office data. Furthermore, German integration efforts have not been without controversy, as the recent successes in regional elections of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland have shown. While there has certainly been progress in integration policies in Germany, it remains to be seen the extent to which the pandemic may exacerbate a setback.

  2. Spain

    Major developments in Spanish integration law occurred at the turn of the century. In 2000, the Spanish government passed the Organic Law on Rights and Freedoms of Foreigners and their Social Integration, that made integration a government priority. Prior to 2000, the main function of Spanish immigration law had been controlling immigration rather than integration. The new law provided irregular migrants with access to state-paid health care, primary education, and secondary education under the same terms as Spanish citizens and regular immigrants. It also formally granted irregular migrants fundamental rights under the Spanish constitution like the right to unionize and associate with organizations.

    The Spanish government has also adopted national integration policies through its ministries. The Ministry of Employment and Social Security (MEySS) oversees Spain’s migration control and integration policy at the federal level. The MEySS sub-directorate of Migrant Integration designs the Strategic Plan for Citizenship and Integration (PECI) and manages the national migrant integration policy which receives EU funding. The first Strategic Plan for Citizenship and Integration (PECI I), which lasted from 2007 to 2010, aimed to adapt public policies in education, employment, social services, and housing to address the needs of the immigrant population. The Spanish government implemented PECI II between 2011 to 2014. Among its main components were a strategy against racism and xenophobia and additional integration mechanisms including labor market-oriented measures, education and training initiatives, and initiatives for community living and social cohesion.4

    The ministry has also sought to fund the country’s regional governments, known as Autonomous Communities, and non-governmental organizations (NGO). Until 2011, the MEySS distributed funds to Spain’s Autonomous Communities for migrant reception and integration. However, due to fiscal constraints, the budget was suspended that year. The ministry now allocates subsidies, through EU-AMIF funds and national funds, to NGOs for migrant integration through open calls for bids. The 2014-2020 National Program for the Allocation of AMIF funds in Spain has three key objectives, and its budget allocation reflects these national priorities: 1) Asylum, which is managed by the MEySS and Ministry of Interior; 2) Integration and Legal Migration; and 3) Return to country of origin.

    Although Spain has a similar federated system to that of Germany and the United States, Spanish regions and municipalities are charged with providing language courses, civic education, and vocational training for the immigrants that reside there. In the region of Madrid, for example, the “Know Your Laws” course was established to provide immigrants in the city with general knowledge about Spanish society. The Ministry of Education also works with the Cervantes Institutes to provide Spanish language courses for foreigners and the Centre for Attention to Cultural Diversity in Education, under the Ministry of Education, provides information and counseling for intercultural education.

    The city of Barcelona has also emerged as a leader in Spanish integration policy. In the city, municipal integration programs have mirrored the national strategy; migrants and refugees have access to housing, minimum living allowances, and labor market integration via the employment service Barcelona Activa. The city has a Migration Commissioner who coordinates migrant integration at the municipal level in conjunction with three secretariats in charge of specific areas. For example, the Secretariat of Welcome Policies for Migrants designs and implements the reception process, while the Secretariat of Citizen Rights and Diversity promotes inter-culturalism and anti-discrimination, coordinating with NGOs to co-design and co-implement literacy and Spanish language programs.

    Finally, Barcelona, Refuge City is a city council plan established in 2015 when the municipality declared that Barcelona was a “refugee city.” It provides refugees arriving in the city with certain services, with the goal of establishing a comprehensive refugee policy model at the local level. In 2016, in collaboration with local NGO partners, the Nausica program for asylum-seekers and refugees was created to complement Spain’s national program, which includes temporary housing structures and a support structure for asylum-seekers and refugees. However, despite having access to such services, migrants in Barcelona nevertheless experience higher unemployment rates, lack access to affordable housing, and face unequal educational opportunities. Due to the increasing number of refugees arriving in the city, Barcelona has struggled to meet the demand for such services.

    Despite the existence of these policies, the Spanish government has passed several laws that have barred immigrants’ access to social services and stripped undocumented immigrants of their constitutional rights.5 After the passage of the Organic Law on Rights and Freedoms of Foreigners and their Social Integration in 2000, the center-right party, Partido Popular (PP) criticized the law’s progressive components, arguing that it promoted irregular immigration to Spain. In March 2000, José María Aznar, leader of the PP and Spain’s Prime Minister from 1996 to 2004, introduced a reform to LO 4/2000 that would amend its progressive provisions, stating that only regularized immigrants could access Spain’s fundamental rights. Although the reform was criticized as being rightward and extreme, it was nevertheless passed.6

    In addition to deterring irregular immigration, the Spanish government has also adopted measures to incentivize the departure of economic migrants. In 2003, Spain introduced its first voluntary return program that offered unemployed legal migrants a plane ticket and travel stipend to support their return to their country of origin. When the recession hit in 2008, the Spanish government argued that the program would give migrants an opportunity to return home so they would avoid relying on unemployment benefits in Spain. The program was criticized for simply returning migrants to even more economically disadvantaged locations, and that the requirements—migrants forfeit their residency permits and not return to Spain for at least three years—were too harsh.

    Despite the dramatic changes in its immigration policies, Spain has made recent strides integrating immigrants into its COVID-19 pandemic response. Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to automatically extend expiring residence permits, visas, foreigner identification cards, and long-term stays for its immigrant population.7 In addition, during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in March, the Spanish government committed to actively recruiting foreign health care professionals to come to Spain and assist on the frontlines of the pandemic. Specifically, the Spanish Ministry of Health made procedures for recognizing the foreign credentials of non-EU professionals more flexible and fast-tracked the processing of work and residence permits for approximately 200 medical professionals.8

  3. Denmark

    Like its German neighbor, Denmark has a similar history of immigrant guest workers. From 1965 to 1973, migrant workers from Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Pakistan were invited to Denmark to fill vacant positions in low-skilled sectors of the labor market. Both Danish society and many migrants envisioned this stay as temporary, so there was little emphasis on integration during these years. Prior to the wave of guest workers, Denmark’s policy framework towards immigration and integration was almost nonexistent between 1960-1969. This changed drastically during the oil crisis of 1973, when the relatively unrestricted guest worker access to Denmark that characterized the 1960s abruptly halted. During the economic boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, demand to fill lower- and higher-skilled jobs again increased.

    In 2001, a coalition of Denmark’s Liberal Party and Conservative Party, supported by the far-right Danish People’s Party, won power, and the new government established the Ministry of Refugees, Immigrants, and Integration (INM), which centralized Denmark’s national approach towards integration. The newly founded ministry assumed responsibilities previously overseen by eight separate agencies. However, the move towards centralization of integration efforts began changing in 2010. That year, the Act of Local Government laid out that integration policy was formulated by the central government but implemented at the local level. Denmark’s 98 municipalities now have independent discretion in managing day-to-day integration of the immigrants in their communities and can adapt the policies laid out by the central government and its relevant ministries in various directions. In 2011, the incumbent center-right coalition that had been led by the Liberal Party lost reelection, and a new center-left government led by the Social Democrats was elected, which continued moving away from centralization and abolished the INM. In its place, the government delegated integration policy-setting originally held by INM back to the federal Ministries of Justice, Employment, Children and Education, and Social Affairs and Integration.9 Thus, while integration implementation remains in local communities, comprehensive integration policy is overseen by several centralized ministries.

    Denmark has prioritized strict cultural assimilation as the cornerstone of its recent integration framework. Although Denmark offers language and civics classes to support immigrant integration similar to Germany, the Danish immigration and integration framework is much more an ethnic model of civic integration. This assimilationist framework has recently been criticized for skirting an almost authoritarian line. In particular, the Danish government has controversially been classifying certain neighborhoods around the country as “ghettos” if more than 50% of residents are immigrants or descendants of “non-Western countries;” have high unemployment, low income, or low education levels; or have a high number of people with criminal convictions.

    In 2018, the central government began executing a plan to try and eliminate such “ghettos” by 2030, in an effort to create a Denmark without what the government deems “parallel societies.” This plan includes extreme policies like mandating “ghetto children” of at least 1 year old be separated from their families for at least 30 hours a week for mandatory instruction in Danish values and the Danish language. Immigrant families that do not comply face possible stoppage of welfare payments. In 2018, Denmark joined several other European countries in enacting a law that limits “garments that hide the face in public”–in effect, banning burqas or niqabs. While Danish politicians argued that the ban would promote integration and gender equality, it backfired as many Muslim women subsequently felt uncomfortable in the open and have further retreated into their homes. In addition, the central government pushed forward a plan to develop an island to house rejected asylum-seekers and has set aside more than $1 billion for the demolition of ghettos through 2026.10 In October 2020, the UN Human Rights Office urged Denmark to suspend the sale of apartment houses in a Copenhagen “ghetto” until its courts can determine whether laws permitting the sale violate residents’ human rights. The central government’s 2018 “Ghetto Package” is currently being litigated in Danish high court.

    In addition to targeting ghettos, the Danish government has also made repatriation of asylum-seekers another goal. In 2019, the Danish government adopted a law called the “paradigm shift” that changed the focus of government efforts from integration of immigrants to repatriating specific populations, namely refugees. The government’s overall goal is now to send refugees back to their home countries as soon as conditions allow for it. Integration as a policy goal was replaced with “self-support and return,” which was criticized as a move that restricted the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the feeling of alienation many refugees and asylum-seekers experience in Denmark under these policies. Those whose asylum applications were rejected and now live in communal departure centers are worried about the risk of infection. As the government continues to move forward with plans to dismantle the “ghettos,” many ask if integration can be achieved through these planned evictions. While Denmark hopes to achieve a country without parallel societies, it remains unclear if their hardline assimilationist strategy will achieve its stated goals in the long run.

Lessons for the United States

From the case studies presented above, there are three important takeaways for the United States, should it consider developing a national strategic immigrant integration policy.

  • Connecting national strategic plans and resources to state and local governments is critical. While it would be the responsibility of the federal government to develop an overarching integration policy, it is ultimately the role of smaller municipal governments to work with relevant community stakeholders to support and integrate the immigrants that reside there. In Spain, a centralized ministry program distributes integration funding to its Autonomous Communities. With the integration goals of the national program acting as strategic guidelines for municipalities, the funding allocated from the central government provides municipalities with flexibility to determine what integration programs best suit their local communities.

    The development of a national integration policy in the United States can also take pages out of Germany’s playbook. While state and local governments better understand the needs of their specific immigrant communities, with an overarching strategic initiative the federal government could ensure that states have the proper resources to address those needs. Whether increasing funding for language classes or providing resources for job training for new immigrants, the federal government can work hand-in-hand with local actors through a strategic plan or dedicated task force to determine what specific needs need to be addressed and what resources exist to do so.11

  • Integration policies need to reconcile with increasing polarization surrounding immigration. Immigration has proven itself to be a divisive issue in American politics, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this trend. Across the Atlantic, our European neighbors are experiencing similar trends around this issue. If U.S. policymakers are to consider formulating a strategic integration plan, these policies need to reconcile with the fact that immigration itself is a polarizing issue, and consequently, so can integration. The demographic changes within communities across the United States has amplified nativist concerns over immigration.

    A strategic integration policy could be part of the solution to address these concerns by bridging this divide, overcoming initial cultural gaps, and showing commonalities between immigrants and native residents in a given community. Americans feel positively towards immigration and strongly support those who make efforts to integrate into American culture. A comprehensive integration policy could help bolster preexisting support for integration by providing sufficient resources for immigrants and localities to make it happen. However, policymakers also need to contend with how to define goals around integration. For example, discussion of integration vs. assimilation are topics that can make any such efforts significantly more polarized, unless they incorporate the views of different stakeholders including local community leaders and immigrants themselves.

  • Language access is a vital component to a successful integration policy.12 Germany and Denmark, federally funded language courses are the starting point in an immigrant’s ability to integrate. In Germany, these language courses are available across the country and are easy to access: simply go to a local foreign registration office, which will subsequently issue a certificate allowing an individual to participate in a language and integration course. In the United States, while the joint federal- state education program called English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) exists, it meets less than 4% of the national need. While ESOL classes focus on improved English fluency and employment outcomes, navigating available resources and knowledge of U.S. civics and history are not as valued under the current ESOL programming. As a result, new immigrants are often left to navigate the social nuances of life in a new country alone and struggle with accessing basic social services.

If the United States hopes to better integrate immigrants into the fabric of society, a more comprehensive and robust national integration policy is needed. While states and local governments undoubtedly understand what programs best suit the immigrants in their communities, a federal strategy, complimented with federal funding, would bolster both new and preexisting integration efforts. Whether that is decreasing language barriers within the immigration system itself or ensuring that U.S. civics courses compliment English-language learning programs, policymakers need to consider how a comprehensive integration policy can not only better support immigrants themselves but also facilitate a more inclusive and welcoming society overall.

End Notes:

1 In a 1982 speech, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared that Germany was not a country of immigration. Kohl was an outspoken supporter of the idea that Turkish guestworkers, who had been living in Germany since the 1960s, should be sent back to their homeland.
2 The “Welcome to Germany” brochure is available in available in over 10 languages, including Arabic, Farsi, and Bulgarian.
3 Frankfurt should not be mistaken with the aforementioned Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. These are two distinct cities – Frankfurt is in central Germany, while Frankfurt-an-der-Oder is in eastern Germany on the border with Poland.
4 The country also adopted national integration plans before this period. In 1994, the national integration plan was adopted by the government, most notably with the creation of the Forum for the Social Integration of Immigrants. The Forum is a consultative body that holds two plenary sessions a year to discuss plans and actions for the integration of immigrants into Spanish society, with its members including immigrant associations, public authorities, and social stakeholders.
5 Enríquez, Carmen, “Spain, the Cheap Model. Irregularity and Regularisation as Immigration Management Policies,” European Journal of Migration and Law. 11. 139-157, 2009. Available at:
6 In 2007, the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down parts of this law and required the Spanish government to implement its rulings into legislation.
7 Other Western European countries that automatically extended expiring residence permits during the initial outbreak included France and the United Kingdom. Germany did not automatically extend all visas. To extend an expiring residence permit, an individual would still need to submit an informal request to their appropriate local migration office.
8 To learn more about foreign-born health care professionals in the United States, read our primer here. To learn more about policy options to better integrate foreign health care workers in the U.S., read our recommendations here.
9 The Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration directs overall integration policy. In February 2014, the Ministry’s name was changed to the Ministry for Children, Gender Equality, Integration and Social Affairs.
10 In summer 2020, several immigrants in a “ghetto” neighborhood outside of Copenhagen filed a lawsuit when they learned their area would be targeted for eviction.
11 11 During the Obama administration, the White House launched a Task Force on New Americans—a government-wide effort charged with better integrating immigrants and refugees into American communities. Over the course of 2015, the Task Force oversaw several initiatives, including the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign and committed 150 Welcoming Communities AmeriCorps members to approximately 100 communities. The Task Force on New Americans has not been reactivated since Donald Trump took office, although President-Elect Joe Biden has promised to revitalize the Task Force when he takes office in 2021.
12 Results from our 2018 New Middle Survey found that 66% of Americans agreed that English language acquisition is key for immigrants’ ability to integrate when moving to the United States.